Osmia, et al.

This week’s bee is an Osmia, that is, a mason bee.  

If you’ve heard of the Orchard Mason Bee, a reasonably manageable solitary bee that has started to show up at some of the better gardening stores around Puget Sound, this is one of its cousins.  It’s on Columbia Desert Parsley, about a mile from where I saw a robber fly eating a sweat bee.  (Yes, I did eventually find a few bees that day, just nothing to match the robber fly’s meal.)

Early Miners, part 2

This week we return to the local mining bees.  After I wrote about the ones living in my alley, Evan Sugden told me about a similar aggregation right off the Burke-Gilman Trail, just west of UW campus.  That was interesting, so I went to check it out before the Friday afternoon showing of More than Honey (which is an excellent film, by the way.)

By the time I got there, things were settling down for the day, and there were only a few bees flying.  Even so, I was able to catch a nice bit of drama: a cuckoo bee (that is, a kleptoparasite, probably Nomada spp.) picked the wrong nest to raid, and was rudely evicted by its resident female.  The light was starting to fade, but I was still able to get a decent shot:

Breaking and Entering

This week’s bee is short and sweet: it’s an Andrena, a mining bee, and a relative of the bees nesting in the alley behind my house.

It’s doing something very unusual.

Early Miners

In the Spring, a young bee’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

This week’s bees are the six-legged Lotharios that are swarming around a rock wall near my house.  They are about as young as bees can get: as far as I can tell, they started hatching out this morning.  So far, only the males have emerged, and they are waiting with great enthusiasm for some company.

Hail to the queens

This week’s bees are bumblebee queens.  Specifically, they’re some of the queens that have just started to emerge from their winter hibernation.

In temperate latitudes, bumblebee nests go through an annual cycle.  The details vary a bit from place to place and species to species, but this is the general story:

Little Carpenter Bee

This week’s subject is a LBB (Little Black Bee, with apologies to any birders in the audience.)

Once you get used to the idea that not all bees look like honeybees, you will start to see a lot of little black bees.  The next thing you will learn is that they are maddeningly difficult to tell apart.  There are no field guides.  Most of the identification keys presume that you have access to a dead bee and a binocular microscope, and they frequently end with dissected genitalia.  (No joke.)  

I do not own a binocular microscope.  I have no plans to buy one.  (Disclosure: I do have access to a few at the UW, but I rarely use them.)  I spend a lot of time thinking about how to ID bees with a camera and a hand lens, and I have reached the conclusion that there are groups of LBBs that simply cannot be identified to species.

Right now, I’ll settle for ID to genus.

Bees from the Emerald City

And now, for something completely different.

Last week, I talked about the bees that got me started on the Western Bumblebee Project.  This week, I’m going to talk about the bee that really got me interested in native pollinators in the first place.

When I was in grad school, I got rather sick for a while and needed to take some time to recuperate.  One thing led to another, and I wound up living in Susan’s basement in Seattle for a few months.  

Now, I’d already started working on bees.  My dissertation (then, as now, incomplete) was on the practical economics of bumblebee foraging.  I knew a little about West Coast bumblebees, and a little more about carpenter bees (which, as solitary foragers, served as foils to the social bumblebees in my dissertation.)  However, I also knew that there were no large carpenter bees in the Pacific Northwest.  

Actually, I would have said that there were no carpenter bees at all, and I would have been wrong.  I digress.

The first few weeks, I spent a lot of time sitting in Susan’s garden, watching bees.  It was a bad year for honeybees, so I only saw a few of those; it was a better year for bumblebees, so I mostly watched them.  (I didn’t see any Western Bumblebees, although I didn’t pay much attention to the omission, not having any particular expectations to compare them to.  They were already dead when I moved to Seattle.)

Then I saw this.

Bee of the Week: Western Bumblebee

The choice of the initial Bee of the Week was easy.  These are the pictures that started it all, or at least that set Beesearch.org on its current course.  This is as good a place as any to tell that story.

Background

I have been interested in native bees and pollinator conservation for years.  I spent most of the past decade or two as a freelance writer and developer (mostly for one or another of the local software behemoths), but between projects, I was learning to find, identify, and photograph pollinators in the lower Cascades.

After one too many projects burned to its conclusion in a haze of sleepless nights, I needed to take a break and spend some days working with bees for awhile.  

I started trying out new projects that might turn out to be interesting and useful.  A few of them – a better field guide for native pollinators, a guide for native bees in apple country, a camera-ready, nonlethal insect collection jar – are still underway, if on the back burner for awhile.  Some others were entertaining but impractical, and probably best forgotten.

Rumors of the Lost

The most interesting project was a long shot.  I knew about the collapse of the Western Bumblebee, not just by reputation, but from personal experience: in fifteen years of walking around Puget Sound looking for bees, I’d never laid eyes on one.  I also knew that they weren’t actually extinct.  There were small populations holding out somewhere  maybe in the mountains  but they were still vulnerable, unable to survive in high traffic areas.  One of the continent’s great pollinators had literally been driven to the edges of the earth.  I thought that that was a story that needed to be told, and some friends and I started kicking around the idea of making a documentary film.  (Among other things, we needed a name for the project.  That’s when I registered Beesearch.org.)

The general idea was that we would travel to places where the Western Bumblebee had once lived, film what was there now, and so tell the story of what it had been and where it had gone.  The final act would have us travel to a distant site to film the last bees in action.  Finding that site would be a challenge, we thought, and the search itself would carry the film.

It didn’t work out like that.  In the summer of 2013, word got around that a gardener north of Seattle had seen a Western Bumblebee foraging on milkweed the previous year.  That didn’t necessarily mean anything: pioneers had blown down from the remnant populations before, but had quickly succumbed to whatever had killed their relatives in the first place.  They had never established a nest, and certainly never survived the winter.

Still, the news was interesting, and I decided to go out and see what I could find. At the time, I didn’t know anything about the garden in question except that it was “north of Seattle”.  That’s not quite as bad as it sounds: most of the suburbs north of Seattle have well known names, or are closer to those names than they are to Seattle.  (If the sighting had been in Everett, the rumor mill would probably say so.)  Still, there were about twenty square miles “north of Seattle,” and bees are small.

In the end, I spent about six hours one Saturday night on Google Earth, mapping out sites that looked like good bumblebee habitat.  The next morning, Susan and I went out to look for bees.

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